In the article released earlier this week, we introduced the readers to our study of Rwandan coffee production. We wanted to continue looking at the African region but focus on another country and share a bit of the unique perspective on coffee growth and production offered by that country.
That led to the question: Which country should we choose? Of the seven countries in Africa that grow coffee, (Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zambia), Sagebrush Coffee has offered coffee from 5 of them. The 2 countries from which we have not sourced beans (Malawi and Zambia) have, quite honestly, lesser offerings both in volume and quality.
While some of the mid-range coffee producers in Africa are growing and offering better and better coffee, for a long time there have been 2 ‘giants’ of the African coffee world - Ethiopia and Kenya.
At first, as we were deciding on a topic for this article, Ethiopia seemed like the obvious choice. Ethiopia is known the world over for its delicious, quality coffees. Ethiopia produces 5% of the world's coffee, and over 3x more than all the other African countries combined.
But, we needed this article to be about more than output, and as we studied the individual countries in the African region, I kept coming back to Kenya. Kenya possesses a few unique characteristics within its coffee industry that make it stand out from the rest. Kenya was one of the last African countries to be introduced to coffee as a cash crop and, as a result, has a more modern approach to all areas of the coffee world.
The early years of Kenyan coffee were tightly tied to British colonization. Coffee was grown on British estates and found solely in London coffee shops. Beginning in 1933, and culminating in the 1960’s with Kenyan independence, control over coffee began to slowly and precariously shift back into the hands of the Kenyan people.
The changes implemented by the Kenyan people in the 1930’s are still in use today, and the most widely known of those changes is the grading system used for their beans. The Kenyan grading system separates the beans by size and quality. Coffee beans are placed in a series of coffee sorting screens with decreasing hole sizes and shaken into place. The larger beans stay in the screens with larger holes, while smaller beans make their way down to the smaller holes.
The largest of the grades is ‘E’, for Elephant. These beans are very large and marked with a little ‘ear’ on each of the beans, a result of the large beans fusing together as they grow, then coming apart during processing. These beans are rare and seldom found for sale outside of Kenya. Along the same line of uniquely formed beans is the ‘PB’ grade for Peaberry Beans, which are unique and delicious and we try to offer whenever we can get a hold of a great one.
The next size and distinction is what some would consider being among the greatest coffees in the world - the Kenya ‘AA’ bean. The ‘AA’ bean is more than just a size distinction, an ‘AA’ bean possesses some unique qualities. These coffee beans are grown only at very high elevations, above 1700 meters. The altitude and weather in these mountainous regions lead to slower growing plants, which allows a longer time for nutrients from the soil to be absorbed into the plant, and better flavor development. These coffees produce a bright, vibrant cup of fruity coffee that is high quality and in high demand the world over.
The next grade below ‘AA’ is ‘AB’, usually a mix of the first and second screen size. It accounts for about 30% of all Kenyan coffee production. It is a slightly lower grade than the ‘AA’, but is still an excellent cup of coffee and is very desirable both in flavor and price. Moving down the screen both literally and figuratively, we have the ‘C’ grade, not considered a high-grade coffee. The ‘TT’ and ‘T’ grades of coffee are small, often light (underdeveloped) beans and are sorted by fan even after they have been through the screening process. These are undesirable beans, light in weight and flavor, and often broken as well. At the bottom of the list are ‘MH’ and ‘ML’ grade beans that stand for Mbuni Heavy and Mbuni light. This lot is often made of over- and under-ripe beans and are often quite sour. While they do sell, they sell for a very low price.
The Kenyan grading system for coffee is one mark of the modern and organized world of Kenyan coffee. Another unique and modern approach to coffee production is found in Kenya's study and research of coffee itself. From a Coffee college in Riuru, to government programs established to bolster every area of coffee output, Kenya is on the forefront of bringing agriculture business into modern times.
Within a year of Kenyan independence in 1963, the new government established the CRF, the Coffee Research Foundation. It has, in recent years, merged with other areas of Kenyan agri-business to form KALRO- the Kenyan Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization. This organization is not content to let the success of Kenyan coffee, an important area of Kenyan livelihood, happen by accident. They have actively researched and studied the coffee plant, soil, plant breeding, and insects, as well as the business side of all things related to coffee. They look beyond the immediate needs of coffee yield, quality, and heartiness, and set their eyes on new concerns such as the environment, youth involvement, and gender balance. Their information and services are available to any farmer or plantation in exchange for a 2% levy on their green coffee beans.
Kenya is seen throughout the coffee world as an example of what coffee growth and production should look like in the 21st century. The grading system is not only admired for its practicality and clarity, it is beginning to be adopted by other coffee growing countries to aid in their coffee sales, as well. Farmers, educators, and researchers in Kenya are working together to learn as much as possible about coffee, with the goal of not just maintaining coffee farming in Kenya, but vastly improving it. The livelihood of millions of Kenyans relies on Kenyan Coffee; Coffee quality and production in Kenya must be maintained and grown.
We here at Sagebrush Coffee think Kenya and the Kenyan farmers are doing a very good job. We have always offered a Kenyan coffee, and strive to roast our beans with the best flavor profile to draw out everything that makes this country of origin excellent and unique. Kenyan coffee will always be one of our favorites whether for drip, press, espresso, or cold brew. This country and coffee really shine in an industry of excellence.